Author Blog

So who is ‘Ruby’?

In the book we meet Ruby in chapter 3. The education system has apparently failed her. Yet she launches into an optimistic description of all the good things that make up the 'other side' of school - the 7Cs of confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship. Real-life Rubys, sadly, seldom have our imaginary character's resilience.

Who are the young people that school lets down the most? Three groups come to mind. First, there are the obvious ‘failures’ of the system – those who leave school with next to no worthwhile qualifications. In the Bad Old Days, this was somehow justified by assuming that (a) schools were more-or-less how they had to be, and (b) it was just bad luck that around half of all young people were not equipped to win at the examination game, by virtue of their lack of ‘ability’, laziness or unfortunate circumstances. The research is clear that this simplistic - status quo confirming - picture is invalid. Students’ apparent level of ability varies widely depending on who is teaching them, for example. It also depends on whether they feel motivated to do their best. Many of those who are judged ‘low ability’ by their schools simply don’t see the point of trying. If I had learned, along the way, that I was destined to be a loser, I’d withdraw my effort, wouldn’t you?

The second group of ‘failures’ are high-achieving students who don’t fulfil their promise when they get to university. They’ve got the grades - they learned how to be ‘good students’ in school - but crumble when their caring teachers are no longer with them and they have to fend for themselves. Students from independent schools, for example, are more likely to get to top universities than their state school counterparts, but struggle more and achieve less when they get there. According to a recent survey by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, independent school students felt they enjoyed more personal attention, clearer guidelines, and more detailed feedback. Sounds like a good thing. But not, it turns out, if all this help has effectively deprived them of opportunities to build up the organisational skills and mental toughness they’ll need to go it alone. Grades get you through the gate but don’t, of themselves, equip you to thrive on the other side. To build resilience requires a different kind of teaching.

And the third group of failures we ought to worry about did well at school and university, and get well-paid jobs, but still, after all that, seem unable or unwilling to think. They have acquired the mental dexterity and linguistic facility of a lawyer, say, able to spin a convincing argument to suit their case, but fail to see that this is quite different from the ability to think deeply and explore imaginatively. They are clever, we might say, but not truly intelligent. When they become senior policy-makers, or even Secretaries of State, their debating skills and relish for a verbal fight is not what’s needed and they can wreak much more damage on society than a few vandals or hooligans.

All three groups missed out on important areas of character development. Schools’ success in this regard is still very hit and miss. And this failure is costly for all three groups, and in fact for all of us. Ruby gained those key strengths and habits, regardless of how inhospitable her educational experiences were.